November 2004

The News-Observer ran an article a few days ago about 3-year-old Matthew Baldwin, who picked up a nearly deadly case of E. coli from a 45-minute visit to the petting zoo in October. Matthew was the first of more than 100 people sickened by E. coli last month after attending the North Carolina State Fair.
From the article:

William D. Marler, a personal injury lawyer in Seattle who specializes in contamination cases, said petting zoos are increasingly being identified as sources of E. coli outbreaks. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published suggestions to cut exposure, such as providing hand-washing stations with running water and soap — an amenity that wasn’t offered at the State Fair’s petting zoos.

Exhibits that fail to take such measures, Marler said, may carry some legal liability, and four North Carolina families have contacted him.

“I don’t think we, as the public and people in positions of authority, have taken this seriously,” Marler said. “Maybe five years ago nobody really knew about this, and it was novel. But it’s far more than novel at this point. There are dozens of outbreaks that have occurred in petting zoos and fairs.

“We have to get past the thought that we’re not going to do anything because fairs are part of Americana. If these were Ferris wheel accidents year in and year out, the public would go crazy.”

There’s nothing more American than the local fair. Countless millions visit them each year for the rides, the delectable goodies, and for some up close and personal — sometimes even hands on — time with the farm animals. What fair-goers are finding out though, and often through devastating illness rather than education, is that the irresistible petting zoos and livestock exhibitions, which attract more children than anything, often harbor the lethal bacteria E. coli O157:H7. For the sake of the kids, we must turn our attention to this undeniable health concern.

Most people associate E. Coli O157:H7 only with undercooked hamburgers from fast food restaurants. As a lawyer who has represented thousands of victims of E. coli poisoning, however, I have learned that the problem is not so confined. Infection can occur in a variety of ways, including attendance at a petting zoo or the livestock barn at the county fair, and those most vulnerable are our children.

Any place where people come into contact with farm animals must be considered high risk for exposure to E. coli and other poisons. The track record speaks for itself. Since 1995, fifteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos in the United States (see www.fair-safety.com). Hundreds have been sickened. Many escape with a bad case of diarrhea and cramps; but some, mostly kids, suffer permanent kidney damage due to a complication of E. coli infection called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS).
Some have even died.

In 2003, 24 people fell ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after attending the county fair at Fort Bend, Texas. Illness was not linked to food. Investigators found, instead, that all ill individuals had visited animal exhibition areas at the fair. Further investigation revealed that both the rodeo and animal exhibition areas were saturated with E. coli O157:H7.

In 2002, in what is believed to be the largest E. coli outbreak in Oregon state history, at least 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. Most were young children, and 22 were hospitalized. Of those who were hospitalized, over half experienced kidney failure. Oregon Health Services eventually traced the infections to the goat and sheep exposition hall, and investigators believe the bacteria were possibly transmitted through the ventilation system.

In 1998, at least 781 people became ill after attending a fair in Washington County near Albany, New York. Of those, 71 were hospitalized and two eventually died from kidney failure. The cause: water contaminated by a neighboring farm.

The list goes on – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio – each outbreak beginning with livestock and other farm animals. In 2001, observing the dangerous trend, the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up.

The warning, however, has gone unheeded, and lessons from previous outbreaks are unlearned. Now it is North Carolina with over 100 children sickened at a recent livestock exhibition.

Those farm animals may be cute, but they can also carry a deadly pathogen. A recent United States Department of Agriculture study of over 20 County Fairs found E. coli O157:H7 in 13.8 percent of beef cattle, 5.9 percent of dairy cattle, and slightly smaller percentages of sheep, pigs and goats – nearly the same percentages found in animals in feed lots. How many of us would take our kids to visit and pet animals in a feed lot?

Imagine how government would respond if the same number of people had been injured from falling off merry-go-rounds. Those wooden horses would grind to a halt and the lawyers would have a field day. But when people suffer from E. coli O157:H7 poisoning, fair and petting zoo-related outbreaks are ignored. Why?

Ignoring the risks involved with human-animal contact and allowing outbreaks to continue makes good business for lawyers like me. But I’ll gladly give up that business if it means not having to see four-year-olds hooked up to kidney dialysis machines. So what do we do? Banish state and county fairs? Eliminate Petting Zoos? Of course not. But fair organizers can take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions.

Continue Reading E. coli and the Fair

The Charlotte Observer in an article this week said cases of E. coli infection have tripled since last week to 112 as N.C. health officials narrowed their search for the source of bacteria to last month’s State Fair.

State epidemiologist Dr. Jeffrey Engel told the media that they’re investigating all areas where people have contact with animals, including the fair’s two petting zoos and other livestock exhibits, and that contaminated food is also under investigation.

My client Kevin Closson, whose 3-year-old daughter was hospitalized for 16 days and nearly died of kidney failure after visiting the petting zoo at a county fair in August 2002, was quoted in the article. “This is not new,” Closson said, “and people are not learning from the mistakes of other people that run these fair venues.” Closson’s daughter was one of two dozen families Marler Clark represented in the Lane County Fair E. coli outbreak.

In this case, the Charlotte Observer reports that one of the victims is a 21-month-old girl. Several kids have been hospitalized with HUS.

As I told Karen Garloch of the Observer:

“We the public have not kept up with the virulence of E. coli O157:h7 … If you talk to every one of the parents from the Oregon case, they had no idea that this could happen,” Marler said.

“When I used to take animals to the county fair, when I was a kid, no one ever heard of E. coli.”

Christopher Snowbeck of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a story yesterday about my clients Richard and Linda Miller, two of the 660 people sickened with hepatitis A in last year’s Chi Chi’s outbreak. Snowbeck’s article Hepatitis still hurts reports:

Tomorrow marks the single day on which the greatest number of outbreak patients — more than 50 — started feeling sick last year. Most of those people have recovered, but from Richard Miller’s home on a quiet street in the town of Beaver to the farms of northwest Mexico, the outbreak’s impact still lingers.

Chi-Chi’s is in the process of paying out about $10 million to roughly 350 of those sickened in the outbreak. That includes payments of more than $35,000 to each of about 50 victims — larger claims that are subject to bankruptcy court approval.

Ernst said fewer than 100 claims from hepatitis A victims have yet to be resolved through a special mediation process. But Bill Marler, an attorney for several people sickened in the outbreak, said several of the remaining cases — including that of Richard Miller — involve some of the most serious illnesses. Chi-Chi’s has $51 million in liability insurance.

But monetary damages aren’t the only pains still being suffered. Richard Miller still feels the pain, too.

In the kitchen of his Beaver home, a plastic tub filled with 11 pill tubes sits on the counter, a constant reminder of the many medicines he must take. Miller received a liver donated by a 24-year-old, and the organ is functioning very well. But the transplant requires him to take anti-rejection drugs, likely for the rest of his life, and cope with their side effects.
During the transplant surgery, Miller suffered a cardiac arrest, which cut the supply of oxygen to the brain. As a result, he has brain damage that sporadically affects his short-term memory.

Hobbies such as golf, hunting and fishing are impossible, and Miller says he can’t even mow his lawn. But what really hurts is not being able to work, he said.

“Work gives you purpose in life,” Miller said. “Somewhere along the line, I have to find a way to find that again. But right now, I only have about two hours worth of work in me each day.”

As Sarah Avery reported for newsobserver.com, E. coli cases keep increasing in North Carolina. So far, 24 cases have been confirmed and 33 cases are being studied to see whether the cases are related.

The most common link among the people who are sick is a trip to the State Fair last month — in particular, to a petting zoo exhibit. Of the 33 cases under scrutiny, 15 have State Fair connections, one attended the Cleveland County fair, seven did not attend the fair and the remainder have not completed the investigator’s questionnaire.

“If it does turn out to be a petting zoo, there are thousands of people who were exposed, and they are widespread,” said Dr. Jeffrey Engel, state epidemiologist. “People came to visit from other states.”

The outbreak is North Carolina’s largest E. coli infection since a 2001 incident in Robeson County that stemmed from unpasteurized butter offered to schoolchildren during a demonstration. More than 200 grew sick.

Food contamination, particularly from beef that has come in contact with animal feces during slaughter and processing, is often the source of E. coli infections, but petting zoos are also common sources.

William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who has built a national practice filing lawsuits in E. coli and other contamination cases, said petting zoos are aware of the dangers of the business, and most provide hand-washing stations. But even the best of precautions can still fall short.

He said he represented 25 families in an unsuccessful Oregon case in which people grew ill after visiting the petting zoo. Half of the victims washed their hands; half didn’t. Babies in strollers got sick despite never getting out of their strollers or touching the animals.

“The frustrating thing was, there wasn’t a common denominator,” Marler said. “We were trying to figure out what the fair did or should’ve done to prevent the outbreak.”

He said two of the North Carolina families in the current outbreak have called him, but he does not know whether there is a legal case. Much depends on what state health investigators turn up and whether the outbreak is traced to the State Fair.

“When I was a kid taking my cow to the fair, nobody even heard of E. coli,” Marler said. “That was 35 years ago. But since Jack in the Box, and with repeated fair outbreaks, we have to be more vigilant.”

I had a nice chat with Mike Keefe-Feldman of the Missoula Independent about John Munsell, the owner of Montana Quality Foods meat packing plant, who is suing the USDA. As the Independent puts it, it’s a lawsuit which “if successful, could bring about the most significant changes to America’s meat-inspection system since the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 tried to limit the amount of crap one could legally shovel into a sausage.”

“This is a watershed moment for meat inspection and public health,” Munsell writes in a statement describing his motivation. In a phone interview, Munsell explains that his suit wouldn’t be necessary had the USDA not fallen victim to “agency capture,” meaning that a number of high-ranking USDA officials have come from within the corporate meat packing industry and are now unwilling to implement practices that could hurt the industry financially. Instead, Munsell says, the agency has turned to reliance on ineffective industry self-policing measures.

“The USDA doesn’t have the courage to do its job anymore,” he says.

Munsell’s meat packing plant was shipped E. coli contaminated beef from ConAgra as early as January 2002. But when Munsell notified the USDA, the only action taken was to make Munsell rewrite his Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plan 14 times and pay for additional testing while suspending him from grinding his own beef for four months. In the end, Munsell was right. The end result was a 2002 recall of nearly 19 million pounds of ConAgra beef. Munsell is suing for more than just compensation for what he perceives as retaliation for his whistleblowing. He’s also suing to change the system.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based managing partner at the law firm of Marler Clark and thenation’s leading food-illness lawyer, called Munsell “the Don Quixote of the system for the USDA” in a phone interview with the Independent.

Marler says the public typically isn’t aware of the magnitude of the E. coli problem because, as in many of his own cases, those who suffer from E. coli receive compensation only by signing a gag order, thus keeping outbreaks out of the public eye.

“Lots of cases that deal with restaurant chains never show up on our website because they pay my clients millions of dollars for a confidentiality agreement,” Marler says.

The Centers for Disease Control reported 443 confirmed cases of E. coli in 2003. Marler says the number is probably much higher, because E. coli in humans often goes unreported, since symptoms typically don’t show until about three days after consumption of contaminated food. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conclude that E. coli causes approximately 75,000 illnesses a year in the United States, ranging from severe diarrhea to death. Marler says he sees about 100 cases in a year, but even if Marler wins settlements for those affected by E. coli, Munsell says that a larger problem within the system goes unchecked.

“When the [affected] family takes their well-deserved money, nothing else is done [by the USDA],” Munsell says. “No improvements are then made to the meat system. A year ago, Con Agra reported their annual net income as $1.9 billion. So if they have to pay a family $200,000, it’s no big deal.”

Munsell is facing an uphill battle for sure, but good for him.